The wind tumbles in from the Atlantic, frays the thinning edges of the cheap Trump flags, bends down an alleyway, and rides in through the high corrugated doors of Bruce Reynolds’ workshop. Here, in the heart of Cocoa Beach, is a hoarder’s menagerie, humid, rust-kissed, a Cracker-Barrel version of André Breton’s studio, where bulbs, gears, wooden carvings, toothbrushes and drill motors accumulate among photos of Pope John Paul II, dart boards, and Hulk Hogan rubber men from the eighties.
Reynolds—loose-limbed, veiny, ageless in the way of the lifelong surfer—is screwing a brake pad onto the head of an Esquire-modeled effigy of Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian. The wind swirls, kicks up paper and magazine clippings, and the artist raises a hand among the confusion to snatch a playing card from mid-air… a dancing jester, burned at the edges, printed with a single word—TRUMP. Reynolds nods. “I was looking for this,” he says.
Kelly Slater, the 11-time world surfing champion and a longtime collector of Reynolds’ work, joins Reynolds for an açai bowl at Surfinista, the restaurant fronting the studio (where the artist and his wife are the proprietors). Their dynamic conjures Johnny Depp and Keith Richards, truth searchers, as they discourse on shadow governments, cetacean telepathy, the 2016 presidential campaign. Their flow is interrupted only when Slater rises from his seat every half hour or so to indulge another selfie seeker.
Back in January, Slater became intrigued by the confluence of Reynolds’ style with the circus atmosphere of the election cycle, and suggested Reynolds put together a gallery show of politically-themed pieces. Reynolds, who usually sells his work into private collections, cautiously agreed. For eight months, down in his workshop, swamped in fear and loathing in Trump country, Reynolds pasted, clipped, backdrilled, and painted, all the while consulting Slater, whose philosophy became integral to the tone of “Apolitical Process,” which displayed at the Folding Table Gallery in Venice.
“Objects have inherent context,” Reynolds says. “They initiate dialogue just by being themselves.” William Seitz, who curated the iconic MoMA assemblage exhibition of 1961, described found-object sculpture not only as a technical composition of the plastic arts, but a “complex of attitudes and ideas … dramatizing the aesthetic of irrational juxtaposition. Every work of art is an incarnation,” Seitz wrote, “an investment of matter with spirit.”
The centerpiece of this show—The Great Wall of Trump—features in chilling Dada triptych Donald Trump in the robe of Jesus the shepherd, Hitler in boxing gloves, and Chairman Mao crowned with the McDonald’s arches. A dark wood-paneled horror-show accumulation undergirds the dictators, stocked with images of madness … saw blades, gauges, alarm bells … below, segregated by rows of barbed wire, the Mexican flag has been slapped with a “No Trespassing” sign.
Constructions like The Great Wall of Trump illustrate how assemblage art could be the perfect medium to square the psyche of a philosophically jumbled country with the notion that a crucial piece of the government never seems to fit. Just as Gonzo journalism lampooned Nixon and the politics of the late sixties and early seventies, visual art, the coded message, best serves Donald Trump up to the Instagram generation.
During the psychotic heat of the Republican primaries, Reynolds built Lyin’ Ted, a freakish representation of one of the biggest losers of our time, repurposing the head of an old Howdy Doody doll, affixing it with a yarn spindle as a Pinocchio nose, and encircling a distended wooden neck with an old brass chandelier ring.
Reynolds never sketches or plans out his pieces, but relies on an intensity of momentum among the chaos. Giant dominoes, a pony yoke, a red crucifix … the jangled ingredients of nightmare. “Your objects are your spectrum colors,” he says. “You reach for them in the moment, based on their character, an architectural element, a patina, or a method in which a thing can be maneuvered or connected.” Just as Duchamp’s readymades infused the budding angst of pre-war Europe, Reynolds’ accumulations channel an America fatigued, on-edge, warped by the comic horrors of a new century.
Automatic assemblage requires a certain unconsciousness, a natural or accidental hand. But there must also be a logic, a common string of intent. Look carefully into No Country for Black Men, an electrical panel turned prison cell, and hidden layers, M.C. Escher pathways, reveal themselves … stuffed blackbirds stand guard over a G.I. Joe action figure, a locked-up black man looking fierce and righteous… wires, a fishing gig, an obscured exit sign … here is a riddle about mass incarceration, prison systems farmed for profit, minorities held on minor offenses, a bondage piece, a statement on systemic torture, on helplessness.
Reynolds does not turn his biting eye away from the Democrats. Ghosts in the Machine, a cubist portrait/ décollage of “Lady MacBill” and the First Gentleman, raises the Clintons within a frame of naked barbie dolls drowned in ooze of epoxy resin, with a Monica Lewinsky chew toy caged over their heads.
An intricately fabricated VW mini-bus, The Free Ride, pokes lighthearted fun at Bernie Sanders.
But it is Reynolds’ oeuvre de Trump that is the most feverish and disturbing. Tweet-le Dee, Tweet-le Dum—an obscene bust of the Republican presidential candidate’s Twitter persona forged from a cracked laptop screen, Cadillac hubcap, and orange spray paint—suggests Trump’s likeness better, perhaps, that surrealist punk’d-art pieces like The Emperor Has No Balls. Trump is, after all, a shape-shifter, a necromancer, a ruse. So he demands a more abstract form. Only when a small, pewter, apple-headed nude shoves her nipples in the dead center of the monster’s pink maw, or a rusted horseshoe from a barn in Central Florida becomes his eye does Donald’s America begin to come into focus.
It is the first week of fall, and Venice smells like sagebrush. Kevin Ancell, the Dogtown street kid turned renaissance painter, is smoking outside the gallery, telling how this building was “the original boathouse for the gondolas.” In a couple of hours, much of the California surf community, mobilized by Kelly Slater’s latest social media post, will flood the space. For now, there is only the electric hum and anticipation of the setup. What kind of art show will this be? A peek into the gallery offers up an unexpected twist. All the walls backing Reynolds’ assemblages are covered with assault rifles.
The guns … gorgeous replicas of AR-15s fashioned from coil nails, parts of pachinko machines, croquet sticks, rolling pins, gas filters, harmonicas … are revelations. Their brutal realism induces shivers, these remnants of Americana turned instruments of ultraviolence. But they send a mixed signal; they intimate something deeper than just a message about gun control… a small red sticker which appears somewhere within each weapon, and flouts two words—”critical power”—might offer a clue.
“People are seduced by power and beauty,” Reynolds says. “The thing has to kill people efficiently, but it has to be handled, it has to be ergonomically correct, it has to be visually pleasing.” He began work on the guns after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and tinkered steadily with them until the day before the show. These pieces stand out particularly fresh and relevant on opening evening, in the wake of Donald Trump suggesting Hillary’s bodyguards be disarmed, so as to “see what happens to her.”
The California sun gilds the coastal range and drops into the Pacific, and the young Venice crowd bubbles onto the sidewalks, charmed by the music, the drinks, the art, the celebrities. They pose in groups of twos and threes in front of Reynolds’ pieces, but have little space or time to stop and stare, and they bypass the secret details. The objects—lost, found, confusing, ballistic, thrown together, hodge-podge—are the dream symbols of their country. Who will pause for another look? Who will make the link between “critical power” and the currency of politics?
Trump howls from the belly of a cuckoo clock. The writing on the wall behind him reads, “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.” Who will be seduced? Who will stand on the sidelines? Who will tune in, who will turn on, who will drop out? Who will cast a write-in vote for Spicoli? What are we to make of our presidential election process, or what Hunter S. Thompson called, as far back as ’72, the “stinking double downer sideshow”?
The first south swell of the season pumps in the next morning. The wind blows offshore. Surfers do what they always do … they paddle out, away from the edge of the country, and afford themselves a unique perspective.
In a few days, the artist will return to his shop in Cocoa Beach, to stand among the twirl of torn papers, and once again set himself to the work of making connections.